PictureThe real hotel was too scary to show.
Oh, number one.  El numero uno.  The single worst mystery shopping experience of my life….  Wow.  Was it bad.

When the Beetle was about 5 and the Goose was about 1, we decided to take a trip to Atlanta with some friends.  We were going to Six Flags over Georgia to ride the Superman roller coaster.  I, being the thrifty wife that I was, decided to get a hotel shop.  We offered that our friends could stay in the room with us, but once they saw how inexpensive the hotel room was, they said they would just book a room at the same place.  This was my first experience with staying in Atlanta, and I learned quickly that there are many different parts of Atlanta.  Some were much more desirable than others, and you guessed it, our hotel was not in the more desirable area.

The fact that the hotel rented rooms by the week should have been clue #1.  Apparently, I was young and stupid.  So, off we went, to explore Atlanta and fly like Superman.

I must provide a little side note here, because though this has nothing to do with the mystery shop, it’s funny enough to tell you.  We all piled in the mini-van and headed north on I-75.  We made it all the way to Valdosta without stopping once.  I was so impressed that the kids had gone that long without a potty or food break.  We stopped at a shopping center, and I told the Beetle to get his shoes on.  He said, “Where are they?”  I said, “Where did you put them?”  He answered that he had not put them anywhere.  We had driven all the way to Georgia without shoes for my child.  This was one of many reasons I was nominated “mother of the year” that year.  Our friends, the childless couple, found this to be hilarious, and they teased us about it for a long time.  I told them just to wait until they had kids, and they would understand.  I mean, really, I was expected to keep two small children alive day to day AND remember to pack shoes?  It was more than one person could handle.  

Okay, so back to the nightmare shopping experience.  We arrived at the hotel after crossing over the railroad tracks.  We were officially on the wrong side of the tracks.  As we pulled into the parking lot, the area was well lit.  Of course, the lighting was blinking, because the parking lot was well lit with police lights.  The cops had someone laid out on the hood of his car, and he was in hand-cuffs.  We’ll chalk this up as clue #2.  Clue #3 was the uniformed officer standing at the door, checking IDs to allow people into the building.  Still, being the dedicated mystery shopper that I was, we headed inside.  In hindsight, for the safety and good of my barefooted children, we should have run back to the mini-van.

We got checked in and headed upstairs.  Judging by the blood stain on the carpet in the elevator, I was pretty sure we weren’t staying.  Plus, many of the “guests” of this “hotel” seemed to have many personal belongings with them on “vacation.”  There were plastic lounge chairs and plants in front of several doors, and many of the curtains in the windows did not match each other.  It looked more like a half-way house than a hotel.

We got to the room and began to inspect.  I had to take pictures, so I got to work.  I instructed Mr. Everything to hold both of my children off the floor and not let them touch anything. 

The room was disgusting.  There was hair on the sheets.  The curtains were stained.  The carpet was ripped.  We could hear yelling next door.  

Picture the worst hotel from an episode of Law & Order, and you’ll have a good mental image of what we were dealing with here.  My Mama Bear instinct was kicking in quickly.  The hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I needed my babies to be out of there.  I asked Mr. Everything to take them back to the mini-van.  He pointed out that they would not be much safer in the car in the scary parking lot, since the cops had left by this point.  I agreed and reminded him again not to let them touch anything.  Then, I headed to the bathroom.

I had to take photos of the tub, the sink and the toilet.  Meanwhile, my friend opened the dresser drawer in the bedroom.  “Uh, Al, you might want to come take a look,” he said as calmly as he could manage.  (And, yes, he actually called me Alison, since no one calls me Al in my real life.)  I walked over and looked in the drawer.  There was a broken piece of mirror with a white powdery substance on it.  Now, it might have just been that someone had a powdered donut while admiring herself in the mirror, but I doubt it.  My protective instincts kicked in, and the rest is a blur.

The next thing I remember is being in the mini-van, heading toward a decent hotel in a decent part of town.  We got a good night’s sleep and had to return to the scene of the crime (literally) the next morning.  I had to check out of the hotel so I could complete the assignment.  I should have gotten a bonus or at least an “Attagirl” for completing that report, but at least I did not get shot or mugged or worse.

The worst part is that our friends actually had to pay for their room.  I felt really bad about that, but they said they didn’t mind.  They said $39 plus tax was a small price to pay not to have to actually stay there.

After that, we traveled with our friends a few more times through the years.  Each time we did, I would offer to get a hotel shop, and they always answered with a very quick, “No!”  Some people just didn’t appreciate my generosity!  -Al

A few years ago, I got the great idea to take a mystery shopping trip to Miami.  I had never been to Miami before, except to board a cruise ship.  I wanted to see it, and there were plenty of shopping assignments there.  So, for our anniversary, Mr. Everything and I loaded up the Toyota and headed south.

Little did I know that the first assignment I had to complete was the worst one of all.  I was to go to a hotel and use valet parking.  If asked, I was to tell the valet attendant that I was checking in.  Then, I was to wait for 20 minutes and return to get my car.  At that point, I would act like I was leaving, so I could fill out the first part of my report.  I would then go back to the valet area and tell the attendant that I was a mystery shopper.  The last part was the completion of an audit form, where I would evaluate everything from their time clock to their fire extinguisher.  It sounded simple enough, so, with forms in hand, I was ready to go.

We got to South Beach around 4:00 PM.  The traffic was unreal.  The people were unreal…literally.  Mr. E said he had never seen so much plastic surgery in his life.  It was amazing.  The streets, cars and people were just like I had seen on TV.  I always thought the shows about South Beach were an exaggeration.  I was wrong. 

We drove past the hotel 4 times before we finally found it.  The street was like a parking lot, so driving past the building 4 times took almost an hour.  The hotel was so trendy that, apparently, they did not need signage.  Those who were cool enough would know where they were.  Finally, we put on our cool glasses and located the hotel.  We pulled up and stopped the Toyota between a Maserati and a Lamborghini.  I begged Mr. E not to turn off the car, but he turned it off out of sheer habit.  

You see, our Toyota had the nickname, “Old Smokey.”  It looked like a nice enough car, but when we turned it on, smoke would billow from the tailpipe.  It would smoke to the point that people would look to see what was on fire.  It did not always do this, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would smoke at a South Beach hotel.  That’s how our luck worked, and I was right.  When the valet attendant started it, smoke poured out of that sucker like I had never seen it before.  I wanted to crawl under a rock and die.  Unfortunately, there was nothing natural, like rocks, to be found in all of South Beach.

Before the smoking began, I had to interact with the valet attendant.  That was fun.  I found it unfortunate that I had not continued my Spanish classes in high school.  They would have come in handy.  The attendant did not speak much English, and I did not speak much Spanish.  He knew enough to ask me if we were checking in.  I said yes, and he asked for my name so he could find it on his registration list.  Uh-oh.  That was not in the guidelines of the assignment, and I knew I was in trouble.  I gave him my name, and he said it was not on the list.  I told him I did not have a reservation but was going to check in.  He told me he thought they were booked.  Double uh-oh.  The point of the assignment was to see if the attendant would park my car properly and to time how long it took to get my car back.  If he did not park the car, I could not complete a major part of the form.  I asked him to park my car, and he said no.  He said he would wait until I saw if I could check in.  He said to bring back the room key and he would park my car.  I acted defensive, trying to throw him off guard.  I insisted that he park my car, and he said no.  He said he would accompany me to the front desk to make sure I checked in.  This guy was starting to get on my nerves.

It was at this point that another attendant started my car to pull it forward and out of the way.  The smoke was unbelievable.  I wanted to cry.

The attendant walked me to the front desk and waited in line with me.  I told him I could handle it, and he said he would wait.  If persistence earned a bonus, this man was going to be rich.  In my head, I was screaming because I did not happen to have room on my credit card to book a room at this hotel.  The overnight parking alone cost $85, so I had no idea how much a room would be.  Besides, I did not know whether I could get the charge reversed.  I couldn’t think of what to do.

It was my turn in line, and the employee said she could help me.  The attendant spoke in Spanish to her and explained, I hoped, that I wanted to check in.  She checked and confirmed that there was no room.  The attendant said he would accompany me to my car.  I thought I was going to faint.  I told him that I needed to use the restroom and that I would make a few calls to see if I could get a room somewhere else.  I went to the restroom and called my scheduler.  It was a Friday evening, and she was off duty.  There was no answer, and I was up a creek without a paddle.

Finally, I went back to my car.  It had never been parked, so I just had to mark those questions as “N/A.”  I told the attendant why I was there and began to conduct my audit.  He was friendlier to me after he found out that I was not just trying to get free parking.  He and I struggled through the report together.  He did not understand many of the questions I asked him, so I had to just wing it on a few answers.

Next, I got to visit a second South Beach hotel to complete the same assignment.  Again, my car smoked like a chimney.  Again, I wanted to die.  I had prayed for two things.  First, I prayed that I would get someone who spoke English, and second, I prayed that they would not have a registration list.  The first prayer was somewhat answered, since the attendant knew about 5 words of English.  I should have been more specific.  The second prayer was answered, and there was no list.  Halleluiah!

When we got inside the hotel, it was unreal.  The entire lobby was white on white on white: white walls, white floors, white cushions on the floors with sheer white drapery hanging.  It was the strangest lobby I had ever seen.  I could not even figure out where the registration desk was.  Luckily, I did not need it since I had no intention of checking in.  

Mr. E asked where I wanted to go to wait for 20 minutes.  “Find the nearest dark corner,” I said.  Now, I had thought ahead and planned what I was going to wear for the visits.  I knew I had to look trendy and in style.  What I didn’t know was that there was absolutely nothing in my closet that would have made me fit in at a South Beach hotel.  I have never felt so out of place in all my life!

We found a bench in a corner near the restroom, and we just watched people heading out to the pool.  The show was worth the admission price.  Those people were fascinating.  The brand names and jewerly and expensive handbags were amazing.  The plastic boobs were intriguing (more-so to Mr. Everything than to me).

The audit portion of this visit did not go much better than the first.  It was difficult asking questions of a person who did not speak my language.  That was what prompted me to post the Facebook status update, “Will the last American out of Miami please bring the flag?”  

I definitely got to see the real Miami on that trip.  It was my first, and hopefully only, trip to that area.  Now, when I see the parking assignments for these locations listed on the job board and the schedulers are offering a bonus, I just chuckle.  I know why.  There wouldn’t be enough money offered to get me to return to these hotels. -Al

My third most memorable mystery shopping experience happened before my kids were born.  My assignment, since I chose to accept it, was to go to a shoe store at the mall.  I was to buy a pair of shoes, wait an hour and a half, and return the shoes.  To this day, I question the wisdom of having shoppers do this.  Who, in the real world, returns anything 1 ½ hours after they’ve bought it?  I mean, I guess it happens, but not often.  Typically, the things I would return that quickly would be at Wal-mart or the grocery story when I picked up the wrong box of cake mix.

My mother went with me for this shopping assignment.  We were going to be at the mall anyway, so I thought I would fit in a little money making.  Buy some shoes and return them.  No big deal, right?  Wrong.  This led to probably THE most traumatic shopping experience of my career.

I went into the store and looked around.  I pretended to care whether or not the shoes fit and if they looked good.  I really did not care since I was returning them anyway.  My mother gave the appropriate responses as I tried on shoes.  Finally, after my required 15 minutes in the store, I picked a pair and bought them.  The employee who helped me was nice enough.  He thanked me and wished me a good weekend.  “You’ll see me long before the weekend,” I wanted to say, but resisted.

For this particular company, the return had to be done in 1 ½ to 2 hours, no more, no less.  Mama and I shopped and went to get our Chick-fil-A sweet tea, a requirement when visiting the mall.  I kept a close eye on the time, and when it was time, we headed back to the shoe store.

I walked in, and the employee saw me.  Now, I’m no reader of body language, but his immediate crossing of his arms was a sure sign to me.  The look on his face also said it all.  My cover as a mystery shopper was blown, and I knew it.  I took a deep breath, put a smile on my face and walked up to the register.  When I got there, the employee just looked, scratch that, he glared, at me.  Finally, I spoke and said, “Hi.  I need to return these please.”  “Uh-huh,” was his answer.  Then, I gave him some story about finding them somewhere else for cheaper.  “Why don’t you have another box of shoes then?” he replied.  I told him I had to return these first because I did not have the money to buy them until I did.  That sounded good, right?

The employee just stood there and stared at me.  I kept a smile on my face, but I think I was starting to sweat.  Finally, I said, “So, can I please return these before the other store sells out?”  Actress of the year; that was me!  Then, the employee said something that, to this day, still shocks me.  He said, “I know you’re a mystery shopper.  You know, I will get a bonus if you write a good report about me.”  This shocked me because, if a bonus was on the line, wouldn’t you think he would have been sugary sweet to me?  I badly wanted to tell him that the nasty attitude was not winning him any points.  

Of course, I could not admit that I was the mystery shopper, so I feigned ignorance.  “What is a mystery shopper?” I said, innocently.  He said, “Oh, you know what it is.  It is someone who is paid to spy on employees.”  “Really?” I said.  “That sounds like a cool job!  I wonder how I get started with that!”  He rolled his eyes.

So, there we stood, at the register and at a stalemate.  Finally, I said, calmly, again, “So, can I return the shoes?”  “I guess,” the employee said, with a snarl.  Again he told me that he would get a bonus if I wrote a good report.  Really, dude?  Was this the best way to get a bonus?  He began to ring up the return, and he pounded the keys so hard I thought he was going to break the register.  The cash register took an excruciating amount of time to process.  I stood there, looking around.  He stood there, glaring at me.  At this point, the employee announced to the other employees and all the customers in the store, “She’s a mystery shopper.”  “No, I’m not,” I said, semi-convincingly.  Then I said, “But I am going to have to check into that.  It sounds like a neat job.”  A nearby customer said, “What’s a mystery shopper?”  I said, “He told me it’s someone who gets paid to spy on employees.  I wonder how you get that gig!”  The customer agreed that she would like that job.  Before I knew it, several customers were in a discussion about what a cool job that would be.  The look on the employee’s face was priceless.

By this point, the return transaction was finished, thank goodness.  The employee took the return receipt and stapled it to my original receipt.  He handed them both to me, and with as much warmth as he could muster, he said, “Thank you.  Have a nice weekend.”  He said this so he would get a ‘yes’ answer for, “Did the employee thank you warmly?”  

As I took the receipt from him, I paused while holding it.  I looked him in the eye and said, “Well, I still don’t know why you think I am a mystery shopper, but if I had been, you just royally screwed up.  If I were writing a report about you, I would blast you to the point that you would never work here again.  You have a lovely day!”  Then, I turned and walked out.

Needless to say, I wrote a long, detailed report about the treatment I received.  I don’t know whether the employee lost his job or not, because, to this day, I have never stepped foot in that store again. -Al

Number 4 on my list of top 5 bad mystery shopping experiences happened after I had been shopping for about 6 or 7 years.  At that point, the Beetle was 2 years old.  I left him with my parents, and I headed out for a day of money making.

My main assignment for the day was an apartment complex.  I was to act as though I was a single female with no children who was looking for an apartment.  No problem, I thought.  I took off my wedding band and covered the white mark with a different ring.  At that time, I could still pass as single and childless.  (I’m pretty sure, now, my appearance screams “MOM!” very loudly.)

Before I headed into the apartment complex, I had my story straight.  I was a young professional in need of an apartment near my work in downtown Tampa.  No problem.  I could handle this.  I was practically super woman!  I walked into the apartment leasing office and met the agent.  She was very friendly, and we chatted for a while.  We talked about where I worked, why I was looking for an apartment and how soon I needed one.  I had passed this portion, the most difficult part of the assignment, with flying colors.  The agent offered to take me on a tour of the property.  All I had to do was “Oh” and “Ah” over an apartment and decline her offers to sign a lease that day, and I was home free.  Then, she asked the question that still rings in my head:  “Would you mind if we took your car?  My golf cart is in the shop.”  

As I heard myself say that would be fine, I was actually panicking and trying to come up with a cover story.  My reality, so different from the cover story I had just created, was that I drove a mini-van that was full of toys and Cheerios and gooey substances on all surfaces.  I walked very slowly as we headed to the parking lot.  My head was spinning.  How in the world was I going to explain this?  “Think, Al, think,” I thought, but I didn’t listen. (And, actually, I call myself Alison.)

We reached the mini-van, and I clicked the locks open.  As the agent got in and looked around, I saw an expression cross her face.  Without missing a beat, I said, “Oh, you’ll have to excuse this mess!  I drive a mini-van because I travel so much for business.  It makes it easier to transport clients when I’m out of town.”  She said, “Do you transport babies?”  Without blinking, I said, “What?” and turned around and looked, as though I was surprised there was a car seat back there.  “Oh no!  I forgot that was even back there!  I keep my nephew a lot on the weekends.  He is with me so much, sometimes it feel like he lives with me!”  She asked me how old he was, and I hesitated, as though I could not tell her the child’s age up to the very hour and minute. (This was my first born, you know.  I knew every statistic about him.)  Then, I assured her that once I moved, I would not have my nephew staying with me.  In fact, my sister was mad at me that she was having to find other child care, but I was relieved.  I didn’t even like kids to begin with.

Apparently the agent bought the story.  I’m sure I was bright red and sweating through this conversation, but I never got any indication that she doubted me.  She did not attempt to have me sign a lease, as she was supposed to, so I didn’t think my mystery shopping cover had been blown.  If it had, she would have done everything perfectly.  That was my first experience of truly acting during a mystery shopping assignment.  I should have been in drama in school.  Who knew?  Perhaps I missed my calling. -Al

Picture(Not the actual station!)
When I first started shopping, I went to lots and lots of gas stations.  Typically, I would go in and pay for two dollars worth of gas.  Then, I would pump the gas and pull out of the parking lot like I was leaving.  I would stop, fill out the “customer service” portion of the report and then head back inside.  At that point, I would inform the employee that I was a mystery shopper, and I would conduct an inspection of their equipment.  The employees would usually either act like they didn’t care, or they would give me a dirty look and tell me to do what I needed to do.  On this day, though, things went a little differently than expected.

I paid my two dollars and pumped my gas.  I filled out the report and then went back inside the location.  The cashier, who ended up being the owner of the location, greeted me in broken English, with, “Hi. I help you again?”  I explained that I was the mystery shopper and I was there to complete an audit.  “What an audit?” he said.  I told him I just needed to fill out a simple form while looking at a few pieces of equipment.  “I pass?’ he said.  I told him I wasn’t sure because I had not done the audit yet.  “I get you a Coke?” he said.  I told him no thank you.  He smiled a big smile and said, “You let me know if you need drink.  I get for you.”  I thanked him and tried to start my audit.

As I walked around the store, I kept feeling eyes on me.  I looked up, and the owner was directly in front of me.  “You want cup coffee?”  He said, “I brew fresh pot.”  I told him no thank you.  “Okay.  You just let me know,” he said as he turned to walk back to the register area.  I took three steps, and he was to my right.  “You hungry?  You look hungry.”  I wasn’t hungry, but I did really want to get the report finished so I could get on to my next assignment.

I went to look at the restroom, and as I came out, I bumped him with the door.  “You want water?”  Again, I thanked him but said I did not.  “Okay.  You let me know.  I pass report?”  I told him that I didn’t know because I had not been able to fill out the report, hoping he would take the hint.  He didn’t.

I walked over to the soda fountain to check the carbonation.  “Oh, you thirsty now!  I get you cup.”  “I’m really not thirsty,” I said.  I told him I was just checking the machine.  “It pass?” he said.  I told him I hadn’t checked it yet.  He turned to walk away.

After I finished checking the soda machine, I turned and walked down an aisle.  As I reached the end, the owner popped his head out from behind a display of Twinkies.  “You thirsty?”  he said.  I told him I really, really was not thirsty.  

A minute later, he said, “You hungry?”  Nope.  Not hungry.  After about 5 more minutes and a few more inquires about my needs, I had completed the report, and I was ready to go.  My next challenge was figuring out how to get out of the store without telling this very pushy man anything about the audit.  I was not allowed to discuss it with him, and if I did, I was risking future jobs.  So, I held my breath and headed for the door.  My goal was to yell over my shoulder, “Thank you!” as I left.  It didn’t quite go as planned.

Right as I reached the door, the owner stepped in front of me.  He was between me and the door.  “You leaving?” he said.  I considered telling him I just needed to get something from my car and then making a break for it.  In retrospect, I should have done that.  Too bad I was so stinking honest.

“Yes, sir, I am.”  I said.  “I pass?” he asked.  “I really can’t discuss it with you,” I said.  “Why not?  That mean I not pass,” he said.  I told him that it didn’t mean that at all but I was not allowed to discuss it with him.  “So that mean I did pass?”  he persisted.  Again, I told him that I couldn’t discuss it with him.  “So I not pass?”  We could do this all day.  I finally told him that I thought he had done very well but that I did not determine whether he passed or not.  “So you think I pass?” he said.  Man, this guy was not giving up.  Then, I did something that, to this day, I feel bad about.  I told him he had passed.  This was an absolute lie, because I knew good and well he had not passed.  His store was disgusting.  The restroom was filthy.  The soda machine was caked with goo.  The gas pumps ran slowly, and the owner had not even thanked me when I paid for the gas.  

I had tried my best not to tell the man either way, but he just wouldn’t leave me alone, so I lied!  I was pretty sure if I told him the truth, I was not getting out alive.  It was survival of the fittest.  I felt bad though, because I knew he would be disappointed when he got the report.  I also knew that I could never, ever visit that location again, and I didn’t.  In fact, that was pretty much the end of gas station audits for me. -Al

So, I’ve waited a few weeks to allow my brain to process this experience so I could tell to you properly. Alright. That’s a lie. I’ve been procrastinating about writing it because I haven’t had time to breathe. True story.

Anywho, guess what? Recently, Mr. Everything and I became spies. That’s right, my friends. He can add “espionage” to the long list of things he can do well. The man truly can do everything (thus the name).

This was sort-of a mystery shopping assignment, but it was more like a mystery shopping assignment on steroids. (No, we didn’t take steroids. Don’t do drugs, kids. And stay in school.) No, this was the mac-daddy of all mystery shopping assignments, and thank goodness, it was in Mr. Everything’s name and not mine. In case you don’t understand that last statement, that means he was responsible for completing the paperwork instead of me. 

This assignment involved going to two places. Actually, it was two assignments, but they were for the same company. We were not to focus on customer service. In fact, it didn’t matter at all how the employees treated us. No, we had other information to get on this mission. We were going to be spies. What were we looking for? I can’t tell you. Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say it involved photographs, videotapes, license plate numbers and an affidavit. Good times.

Now, the first step of being a mystery shopper (or spy!) is to learn how to blend in. You have to be a chameleon. I’m pretty good at that. Since I look like an average housewife, no one pays much attention to me. Little do they know how un-average I am! Mr. E and I together can typically blend in any situation. Unless there’s dancing involved. Then, we’re in trouble. One thing not on the Everything list is dancing. The man has no rhythm.

So, for our first mission, we had to go to a bar. No problem. We’ve blended in there before. I can’t say I’m completely comfortable in a bar setting, but I’ve gotten pretty good at acting natural. Sometimes, our normal mystery shopping assignments involve going to the bar of a restaurant before or after the meal. No problem. However, in this case, the bar we went to was not a bar. It was a club. The only time I’ve ever been in an actual nightclub was when I was 17 and I went to Europe. I didn’t even speak the language, so I certainly did not fit in there. 

We honestly thought we were walking into a sports bar or pub-type place. We were wrong. When we arrived, we first thought the place was closed. There was no one there but a man who was working on a laptop. We opened the door and went in. I asked if they were open, and he said they were and to come on in. The man was really nice, thank goodness. However, I quickly knew “fitting in” had gone right out the door.

This was a night club. They didn’t even sell food. (What kind of place doesn’t even have nachos??) The music was blaring at a deafening volume. The words coming from the music? Well, let’s just say someone needed his mouth washed out with soap. It was bad, people. Really. Between the ‘N’ word and the ‘F’ word being thrown out on every beat, my head was spinning. My instinct was to run, but we had a job to do. Within 5 minutes of being there, the nice man who was running the place completely confessed to what it was we were there to gather evidence about. Unfortunately, he said it before Mr. E had a chance to get his video camera up and running on his phone. Too bad. It would have been a beautiful confession.

Instead, we sat there for a few minutes. It felt like we were there for at least 3 days. I tried to act natural. Um, yeah. 41 year old mother of two bouncing along to the ‘N’ word, ‘F’ word music. That’s natural, right? Mr. E ordered a drink. Every time the employee would walk away, I would say under my breath, “Drink it. Drink faster. Get me out of here.” We had expected to be able to show up, eat a burger and hang out to get the information we needed. Instead, we sat awkwardly, alone at a bar in a night club. Ah, the memories.

When Mr. E felt like he had enough video coverage of what he needed, he told me he was going to go the restroom to check it. “You’re leaving me??” I said. He pointed out there was no one there. I told him that made it easier for them to hide my body after they killed me. I offered to go to the bathroom with him, but he said that might make us a little memorable. So, I waited. Awkwardly, alone at the bar in the nightclub.

When Mr. E came out, we paid and left. We had to drive around and take some photos of the outside of the building. In that time, I’m not sure how many times I said, “NEVER AGAIN! That was the worst experience of my life!” Little did I know, we were just getting started!

Our second assignment made the first one look like child’s play. At least the guy at the first place was nice and was not creepy. At the second place, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up during our entire visit. (And for those of you who don’t know, that’s a mama thing. We KNOW when things aren’t right.)

The second location was not a bar. I was excited about that. However, by the time we finished, I was begging to go back to the bar. Oh, no, the second place was an E-cigarette store. As in, smoking. As in, those stupid looking, pen looking things people are now sucking on instead of cigarettes. We thought it was going to be sort-of a bar setting. I pictured a bar with people sitting there, trying different vapors. Not the case.

No, no, no. This was a store. Literally. It was in a grocery store strip mall. It was brightly lit and had a glass window store front. It was not a bar. At first, I thought that was a good thing. I was wrong.

As we walked up to the door, we realized the store hours said they closed at 9:00. We were there at 11:00 PM, but they were clearly open. I knew, going in, that we had to have a good reason for coming to their store on a Saturday night at 11:00 PM. I searched my mental database of reasons, but I had nothing. However, we were now standing in front of a well-lit store, and the people inside could clearly see us. It was not like I could stand there and think of a reason without being obvious, so in we went.

One employee greeted us, and the hair on my neck immediately stood at full attention. He asked if we were there for the special event. I knew what the special event was based around (since this was part of our assignment), but I did not know the details of their event. So I went with “No.” Then, by the look on the employee’s face, I knew I had just raised suspicion since we were not there for the special event but we were there. I quickly recovered by saying I had intended to stop in for weeks but hadn’t. I told him, we were driving by and saw the lights on and figured then was as good of a time as any. He seemed to buy it.

For the next 7 hours (Okay, we realized later when we watched the video that it was only 3 minutes, but it sure felt like 7 hours), I distracted the employees while Mr. E got the video he needed. I did this by acting like the dumbest potential smoker they had ever met. Actually, I didn’t say I wanted to smoke. I knew I couldn’t be believable. Instead, I said I was there to get information for my father. (When all else fails, through the parents under the bus.) I asked question after question after question, coming up with anything to keep the employee talking. While I did this, I saw another employee lurking around. (They were all lurking. They were creepy. Thus the neck hair salute.) He went to the back room, and when he returned, another bigger guy came out with him. (Uh-oh. SECURITY!) The big guy went and spoke to Mr. E, trying to figure out what we were really doing there, but Mr. E maintained the story I had created. Then, the big guy came up very close behind me, under the premise of getting food from trays beside me. However, I had no doubt he was trying to intimidate me. (Cue the Tom Petty song, “I won’t back down,” playing in my head.) I took a big step to the side and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Was I in your way?” He just looked at me. He didn’t smile and did not answer me. It was a good thing we had stopped at Taco Bell on the way for me to use the bathroom. Otherwise, I might have just embarrassed myself.

I never missed a beat in talking to the first guy about the many fascinating ways to vape. (Yes, that’s what they call it. Vaping. As if it could sound any dumber.)

When Mr. E approached and touched my arm, I knew he had what he needed on the video. I thanked the nice young man, and we left. (And the academy award for best acting role in a weird situation goes to….) I resisted the urge to run to the car. I knew they were still watching us.

The challenging part was getting the photographs we needed of the outside of the building. Then, even worse was gathering license plate numbers. As we were finishing that, the big guy came outside. He was looking right at us (or at least, in our panicked state, we thought he was). Mr. E kept his composure, backed up and left. The big guy got in his car, and at first, we thought he might follow us. Later, we laughed at ourselves for being so nervous that we thought so. He was probably just going to get a real cigarette from his car.

When looking back at the video of the vaping experience, I realized I’m a pretty good actress! As I listened to myself, I knew I was panicking, but I couldn’t even hear it in my voice. Perhaps I missed my calling. Maybe I was supposed to be a famous actress, or better yet, maybe I was supposed to be a spy!  -Al

Once you have signed up for mystery shopping companies and have begun looking for jobs, you will quickly be on your way to being a great mystery shopper.  Just like any job, practice makes perfect.  The assignments will become easier to complete as you get a little experience.  You’ll learn how to remember the details you need to observe, and you’ll find creative ways to take notes or play games in your mind to help you remember.

Experience will definitely help you, but there are some simple things you can do to quickly improve your mystery shopping skills.  These are inexpensive ways to get a jump start on your mystery shopping career.

Invest in a good book.  There are a few good books out there about mystery shopping.  One in particular that I recommend is The Essential Guide to Mystery Shopping by PamInCA.  This was written by a friend of mine, and she is an expert on the subject of mystery shopping.  In fact, she is so much of an expert that she started the IMSC (Independent Mystery Shoppers Coalition).  She knows her stuff, so her book is packed with great information that you will find useful in your new career.

Get certified.  Two organizations offer a certification for mystery shopping:

The first one is the IMSC. They offer certifications for Basic Mystery Shopping and for Video Mystery Shopping. It costs $20.00 for the video for 30 days and $10.00 for the certification test. However, they offer the certification test once at no cost for all IMSC members. They offer the video certification test once at no cost for anyone who has taken video training anywhere by anyone.

The second is the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association).  When you buy a membership with them, you get a course that is an introduction to mystery shopping. There memberships are reasonably priced, and more information can be found at their website, http://www.mspanorthamerica.com/.

Use Facebook to network.  Most companies are on Facebook.  When you visit their sites, like them.  Many post information about their job availabilities on Facebook.  There are also pages for schedulers, and there is a group called “Mystery shoppers.”  It’s a good idea to find those and join so you can network with other people in the business.

Attend an IMSC conference.  This is the organization started by PamInCa.  The IMSC holds four conferences a year.  These conferences bring mystery shoppers together with legitimate mystery shopping companies.  I can’t tell you how much this helped my mystery shopping career!  By attending, I let companies know that I was serious about shopping.  I met schedulers and other employees from many companies.  I heard about companies that I was not registered with yet, and I learned a lot about the mystery shopping industry.  I have now attended five conferences and have come away from each one with increased knowledge and contacts in the mystery shopping industry.  I highly recommend you attend a conference if you possibly can. You can look at the IMSC and find out what they are all about and what they have to offer at imscinfo.com.

I hope these tips help you.  I absolutely love mystery shopping.  I don’t earn my living solely through shopping, but I know many people who do.  There is good potential to make money with mystery shopping.  There is also great potential to get reimbursed for meals, entertainment and merchandise.  Happy shopping!  -Al

The day I met you, I did not even know I wanted you. We had gone to the animal shelter for a different dog. We thought we wanted one who was a little bigger and more hearty, so it could survive our children. That dog was labeled, "No children," so I thought we were going home without a pet. Mr. Everything convinced me to at least look at other dogs, but I had no intention of taking one home. Then, there you were. Two little eyes looking at us from the back of the cage. You looked so scared, and you had the biggest ears. Mr. E pointed you out, and I said I didn't think so. I said, and I quote, "That is one of the ugliest dogs I have ever seen." (By the way, sorry about that.) Mr. E said we should at least give you a chance, so we asked the attendant to take you out of the cage. We took you to a nearby room where we could put you on the floor and get a good look at you. Then, I knew. You were mine. From the first moment we met you, you had the sweetest disposition. You were small enough, but you were big enough that the Beetle and the Goose wouldn't crush you. We decided to take you home. We thought we were doing you a favor. Little did we know how much you would do for us.

-You taught my children to love animals. Before you, they were afraid of baby ducks. (Baby ducks, for goodness sake.) They were a little timid with you at first, but you never growled, nipped or bit, and quickly, the Beetle and the Goose learned to trust you.

-You were my constant sidekick. The whole family thought you were our dog, but really, you were MY dog. I knew it. You knew it. You stayed by my side day and night for 13 1/2 years.

-You patiently endured the Goose. While she painted your toenails, spray painted you and even dressed you in baby clothes, you looked at me longingly, asking me to save you. Sometimes, I did. Sometimes, I didn't. But either way, you endured.

You survived the summer of the hurricanes with us.

You were there to comfort the Goose after she scraped her forehead so badly the skin had to be glued back together.

-You were there to comfort the Beetle when he had his tonsils removed.

-You gave the same comfort to the Goose when she had hers removed.

You were a quiet comforter for us all.

-You were there with us when we had to leave our home. (In fact, my furry friend, you were the last remaining piece of "home" I felt like I had left, and now that is gone. You will be sorely missed.)

-You were there for us when we moved.

-And moved again.

-And again.

-And again.

-And again.

-And....again. And regardless of where we were living, you were happy, as long as you could be with us.

-You were there to comfort us when we lost 2/3 of our income in a fire. You didn't even care that we were broke.

-You were there to comfort me and calm me when Mr. E had his face burned.
You tried to lick away the tears, though I really, really did not want you to do that. (Sorry. I've seen you eat poop.)

I could go on and on and still not name all the ways you have given to us. While we thought we were saving you, you saved us.

You were a true friend, when I sometimes felt like I had no others.

You made me feel accepted when I otherwise felt rejected.

I am so thankful you did not suffer, and I am also so glad I did not have to make a decision about when to let you go. You went naturally. Even your death was as low maintenance as you had been for all those years with us.

As I sat there and watched you take your last breath, I knew I would never find another dog lik
e you. Surely, I couldn't. You were weird. That's probably why you fit our family so well. There could never be another dog like you, that's for sure. You were my companion. You were my constant buddy. You were my Pepe Chihuahua.

It's a like a homeschool convention from the comfort of your home! Many homeschoolers struggle with teaching reading. I know that was my least favorite thing to teach, as my kids struggled to learn the phonic sounds. Here is a great opportunity to learn strategies that will help your kids become strong readers. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine is having a free reading clinic and expo, and they are giving away a Kindle Fire! Go sign up today, and don't miss your chance to win! Click HERE or on the photo for more details!